Hilburn bio looks beyond the highs and lows of Johnny Cash's history
Johnny Cash often liked to say he never let facts get in the way of a good story.
Robert Hilburn doesn't, either.
In his excellent biography “Johnny Cash: The Life,” the longtime Los Angeles Times music critic instead uses the facts about the American cultural icon's life to construct a story that's both larger and more fascinating than the legend.
Hilburn doesn't seek to sensationalize or scandalize or demolish the image of Cash that people have because of self-mythologizing music like “The Man in Black” and the “Live at Folsom Prison” album or the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line.” Instead, he fills in the gaps between career highlights, giving context and new shape to familiar tales.
Following Cash's history from his childhood in Dyess, Ark., to the creative victory laps of his final years, Hilburn pulls together the threads of Cash's music, career and personal life. He draws on dozens of interviews with the singer, his friends, family and colleagues, as well as earlier books about Cash and memoirs of those close to him.
Hilburn details the creation of landmark recordings such as “Ring of Fire,” “A Boy Named Sue” and Cash's final recordings with producer Rick Rubin.
He re-examines Cash's catalog of more than 70 albums, explaining why 1960's “Ride This Train” was “the first, great concept album” and why so many of the '70s releases failed commercially and aesthetically.
Throughout the book, Hilburn shows how Cash's managers and record labels positioned him as a performer who could appeal not only to country fans but also to rock and folk audiences. Those efforts, from '50s crossovers “I Walk the Line” and “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” for Memphis' Sun Records to Rubin's American Recordings series, gave Cash widespread credibility that few other country artists have enjoyed.
Hilburn also unravels the singer's complex identities — the boy, born J.R.; John, the man; Johnny, the entertainer; and Cash, the persona that jeopardized all the others.
For instance, June Carter, Cash's wife of 35 years, “called him ‘John' from the start,” Hilburn writes, “switching later to ‘Cash' only in those moments when she wanted to point out to him that he wasn't being himself — when he was high on drugs or on ego.”
Perhaps most impressively, Hilburn reclaims Cash's relationship with Carter from the fairy-tale status it assumed after the two singers died within four months of each other in 2003.
He doesn't shy from describing the pain Cash and Carter inflicted on their families when they began their affair while married to other people.
He also addresses Carter's prescription-drug abuse, often overshadowed by Cash's gargantuan, life-threatening appetite for pills.
At the same time, Hilburn conveys the devotion the couple had for each other, depicting their marriage as the towering achievement it turned out to be.
“Johnny Cash: The Life” ties Cash's triumphs and his famous failures together. Though lesser known, those times make for some of the book's most compelling and humanizing reading.
Ten years after Cash's death, Hilburn has created the definitive narrative of this “symbol of American honor, compassion and struggle.” It's a biography worthy of its subject.
Brian Mansfield is a contributing writer for USA Today.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Review: Adam Makos’ perfectly paced ‘Devotion’ cruises along in the fast lane
- A la carte: Books make appetizing holiday gifts
- Steve Knopper authors superb new biography of the King of Pop
- Review: Jane Smiley’s ‘Golden Age’ looks at life’s precious moments
- ‘The Giver’ author embraces difficult topics in her novels